Dear Rabbi Fried,
Every year I am challenged as a mother by the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas, especially in a year like this where the two actually coincide. How can we possibly compete, with our candles, with their stunning display of colorful lights, filling the malls, decorating their houses, on their trees?
What do I say when the kids ask me if Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas?
What you and many like you are facing is truly a real challenge. We and our children are surrounded by the culture of the country in which we live, and if we try to “outdo” those around us we are doomed to failure. We must instead, while acknowledging the compelling nature of the local culture, focus on the beauty of what we have as Jews.
I have always been struck by what I consider one of the greatest ironies of Jewish history: Scholars have shown that many of the customs and celebrations of Christmas are actually based upon our celebration of Hanukkah, which predated Christianity by hundreds of years. In their desire to attract Jews to Christianity, its founders established this holiday at the same time as Hanukkah, with many similarities, but better, hoping it would break down the barriers for Jews to enter their fold. Hence their lights, which are an embellishment of our lights. The gifts, which started later, a takeoff on our Hanukkah “gelt.” The original 12 days of Christmas are a replica of the Torah reading of Hanukkah, which outlines the gift of the 12 heads of the tribes during the consecration (Hanukkah) of the original tabernacle, over 12 days.
Studies show that more Jews observe Hanukkah than any other Jewish holiday. Some sociologists explain this phenomenon — as you mentioned — that many Jews consider Hanukkah their “Jewish Christmas.” How ironic is it that the very holiday which is a replica of Hanukkah should be reversed and serve as the source of Jews observing Hanukkah!
(The irony continues to grow: Many, if not most, of the familiar Christmas carols which literally define the contemporary holiday were actually composed by Jews! I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Let it Snow, Let it Snow; Silver Bells; You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch — to mention a few — were all composed by Jews!)
To make it even more ironic, the very essence of Hanukkah was enacted as a celebration of the Jews to withstand the Syrian-Greeks’ attempts to assimilate the Jews into Greek culture and society. The miracle of the menorah was performed upon a flask of olive oil. One of the symbolisms of the oil is that even when mixed well with water, eventually the oil will not remain in suspension but will separate and rise to the top. So too the Jews were not able to become assimilated; they eventually separated and rose back to the top, to their connection to G-d and to each other. The last thing we would expect is for Hanukkah to be a way to identify with the culture around us, the antithesis of its own essential message!
I would recommend you visit some of the many wonderful Jewish websites which offer a wealth of material you can utilize to explain the beauty of Hanukkah to your children and will enrich your own appreciation of this special time. Aish.com and Chabad.org, to mention a couple, provide reading material, videos, cartoons and many multimedia opportunities to bring Hanukkah alive to your family and friends.
On Hanukkah we begin with one light and ascend to more and more lights, day by day. May Hanukkah be a time that all Jews will ascend and grow in their observance and pride to be who they are!
A joyous and meaningful Hanukkah to you and all the readers.